Many Christians simply don’t know who they are. They don’t understand their identity in Christ, the new nature they have been given, the foundation of grace God has provided, and the Spirit who lives within them. As a result, they revert to old-nature strategies: try hard, do good, fail, and try again. Those strategies come early in life; most of us have been trained from an early age in a punishment-and-reward system. We experience negative consequences for bad behavior, but we are given incentives and rewards for good behavior. So it’s only natural that we would apply the same psychology of behavior to our relationship with God.
But that’s not the kind of relationship God has given us. Jesus already took the punishment for our sins, united us with Him in resurrected life, and made us His coheirs so we can receive the rewards He deserves. That’s part of what it means to be “in Christ.” He exchanged His life for ours, taking our sin upon Himself and giving us His own righteousness. He paid the price for us, and we enter into the life He has given. When we act as if our relationship with God is based on our behavior, we are stepping out of that grace and reverting to old ways. We have to know who we are in Him and live from the new righteousness He has provided.
The biblical word for being made right with God is justification. That’s what happens the moment we receive Christ. We are justified. God takes all the sin and guilt in the debt column of our lives and marks it “paid in full.” This isn’t just a wave of a wand or an arbitrarily canceled debt. It is based on what Jesus did on the cross. He took the penalty of our sins upon Himself, and when we receive Him by faith, that sacrifice applies to our relationship with God. Everything is paid for. Not only that, the righteousness of Jesus was deposited into our account, so God sees us as holy and pure in Him. That’s our legal standing before God (Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:24, 28). We can’t add to that standing or take away from it. It’s ours—a gift of grace.
The biblical word for living out that justification—demonstrating the righteousness that has already been given to us—is sanctification. It simply means being “set apart” to God. In one sense, we have already been sanctified—set apart and made holy. But in a practical sense, it’s an ongoing and lifelong process by which God changes our heart and life from the inside out to conform our character to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29; 1 Thess. 5:23). Like being given a new wardrobe that doesn’t fit us now, we are given sanctification and then spend our lives growing into it.
But that’s where the problems arise. Many Christians don’t know how to grow into it. How do we make use of the grace God has given? Why do we keep sinning if God already forgave us and cleanses us? How do we live as new creations in our old, sin-saturated environment? If we don’t know the answers to those questions, we will revert to the try hard, do good for a while, fail, then try again cycle. Eventually that turns into trying hard and faking it—or just giving up.
For the first two years of my Christian life, I lived in two worlds. On Thursday nights, I would sing praises to God in the living room of a bricklayer who led our campus ministry. On Friday nights, I would barhop with my basketball teammates all over town. I was miserable, plagued by a never-ending cycle of failure, guilt, depression, repentance, resolutions to never do that again, another try, and back to failure again. I had tasted the reality and freedom of my new life in Christ. Living out that reality was another matter. God brought some great people and some biblical teaching into my life that broke this vicious cycle. Unfortunately, many Christians are still stuck in it.
The pattern of “trying hard, doing good” for a time, and then failing can be terribly disheartening. I’ve heard the same laments again and again from numerous Christians:
“I try to read my Bible every day, but I miss sometimes and get off track.”
“I try to conquer my lusts, but they keep coming back.”
“I try to pray, but I’m not getting answers, and I lose heart.”
“I try to be patient, but I keep losing my temper.”
The variations are limitless, but the dynamics are always the same. This is willpower Christianity, and no matter how long it succeeds, one failure makes the whole effort feel as if it is “unsuccessful.” A 90-percent success rate isn’t enough if frequent or even occasional failures seem to put us back at square one.
About a year and a half into my Christian life, I was so frustrated with my failures that I actually tried to quit. I got stuck in that dilemma between “something’s wrong with me” and “the gospel isn’t working.” I didn’t realize it was a lack of knowledge about God, His Word, and the sanctification process. I needed to learn how to tap into God’s grace and power. I believe millions of believers across our country are living in that kind of defeat because they don’t know what God teaches us about how holy transformation works in everyday life.
The process of sanctification requires us to walk by faith, and walking by faith necessarily involves responding to the alerts and prompts of Scripture. When God’s Word shines light on a problem in us, it opens up a conversation with Him. We ask Him what it looks like to trust Him in a particular situation, relationship, or problem and read and listen for His answers. But it is important not to focus only on the issue itself. Focusing on our sin and struggles intensifies them. We need to turn our focus instead to whichever of God’s promises apply to the temptation or struggle we’re going through. Then we walk with Him by faith through that situation. As we apply these promises as our source of strength to address these issues, we are walking by faith. That’s the core of Christian living, and we are changed in the process.
Ingram, Chip. 2021. Yes! You Really Can Change: What to Do When You’re Spiritually Stuck. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
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